Feline Panleukopenia, commonly referred to as feline distemper or panleuk, is an extremely contagious virus and a life threatening disease. The virus tends to target kittens and large populations of unvaccinated cats. The virus can be found virtually everywhere that is not regularly disinfected. The virus is very hardy and can survive for months, and even years.
The feline distemper virus is easily transmitted from cat to cat. An infected cat sheds large amounts of the virus through feces, vomit, urine, saliva, and mucus. The infected cat can shed the virus even if he or she is not obviously ill. Food and water bowls, people, parasites, and clothing can all act as carriers to spread the virus from an infected cat to a naïve cat. A queen can also pass the infection on to her unborn kittens.
The virus enters the cat’s body and proceeds to infect rapidly dividing cells. The lymph nodes are first to be affected and from there, over the next 2 to 7 days, the virus rushes to the bone marrow and intestine. Once the infection has reached the bone marrow, the virus will suppress the production of the entire white blood cell line, which is the body immune system. Without these cells, the patient is completely vulnerable to the advancement of this virus and any other infection. The virus can travel to the intestines, causing ulceration. As a result of the ulceration, the pet will begin to vomit and have diarrhea, with or without blood in it, and eventually will become severely dehydrated. The ulceration also allows bacteria to enter the blood supply causing severe infections throughout the body.
Clinical signs of Feline Panleukopenia include vomiting, diarrhea, and depression. The victims often will not eat and the third eyelid in both eyes protrudes from the inside corner of the eye. They generally stop grooming and develop a rough and dull hair coat. As the disease progresses, the cat will have abdominal pain and take on a “hunched over” posture and become severely dehydrated leading to comatose and eventually death. If the infection occurs during pregnancy, a part of the brain will not develop properly.
Any kitten or adult unvaccinated cat with the above mentioned clinical signs should be suspected of having feline distemper. To diagnose the infection, a veterinarian will perform a Complete Blood Cell Count that will invariably show no white blood cells. There is a test that will confirm the presence of the virus in the cat’s feces.
Treatment involves alleviating vomiting and diarrhea and replacing fluids through IV fluids. Antibiotics are warranted to prevent or treat the bacterial contamination in the blood circulation secondary to the stomach ulceration. Treatment is continued until the cat’s immune system is able to take over. The average time of hospitalization is 3-5 days. There is little chance of survival without hospitalization. Virus is shed for up to six weeks after recovery.
Feline Panleukopenia is a terrible disease. Fortunately, vaccinating offers excellent protection from the disease. At Twin Valley Veterinary Health Services, we recommend that all cats are vaccinated 8 weeks of age and then every 3-4 weeks until they are 16 weeks of age. Once a kitten has had a complete vaccine series, the distemper vaccine is done on an annual basis. The vaccine cannot be given to any pregnant female due to the virus’ reaction in the fetus.
If you have any questions regarding the above information or any concerns in general, please contact Twin Valley VHS at 745-6642.
Dr. Justin Noble DVM
Twin Valley Veterinary Health Services